Donald Trump’s Political Legacy
By Professor Suzanne Dovi (University of Arizona)
January 15, 2017 Picture: Rick Wikin/Reuters.
This article is part of The Critique’s January/February 2017 Issue “Stick It To The Man: A Year Of Anglo-American Populist Revolt Against A Changing Culture & An Obtuse Political Establishment.”
“I never planned on becoming a brand name.” – Donald Trump
To understand President-Elect Trump’s legacy, it is necessary to recognize his particular form of politics, what I call “Name-Brand populism.” Trump’s form of politics forges an unhealthy alliance between America’s consumerism and its populism. American consumerism reduces citizenship simply to “shopping” for candidates. Here democratic citizenship is no longer dependent on knowledge of or adherence to constitutional protections. Nor does democratic citizenship reflect a deep normative commitment to equality and political liberty. Political freedom in this form of politics is about exercising choice in order to gain status. Furthermore, America’s populism dictates an understanding of democracy as nothing but rule by a unified people. And this unity is achieved by making America into an exclusive club that keeps others out.
The appeal of Name-Brand populism can be partially explained by the extent to which Americans think about and understand their political lives almost exclusively in the language of the marketplace. Trump’s success therefore cautions against replacing the values of equality, liberty, and decency with those of efficiency, competition, and ‘winning’. Recognizing the particular nature of Trump’s populism also allows us to account for why his erratic behavior and offensive comments did not sway voters against him. They were buying a brand, not voting to advance particular policies. Trump’s eccentric behavior fit the brand well.
Pragmatic “Shopping” for a President
Among some academics there is a tendency to understand Americans as a “pragmatic” people. According to this line of thinking, Americans are motivated mainly by “pocketbook” considerations, as opposed to ideological ones. They are motivated by what is good for “Main Street” and willing to compromise their principles for practical gains. For instance, Daniel Bell famously argues that American socialists are not able to gain any far-reaching support among the public because of their “concern with ideological purity” as opposed to incremental policy deals. The rhetoric of professional politicians is considered overblown and empty, not the language of the average Joe and Josephine.
Historically, the notion of pragmatism is associated with the philosophical views of William James. James understood the history of philosophy as “a clash of human temperaments” – specifically between the ‘tough minded’ and the ‘tender minded’. The tough minded are committed to going by ‘the facts.’ Their actions are guided by empirical considerations. In contrast, the tender minded are driven by idealistic principles that appeal only to the mind.
In contrast, contemporary politics understands the tender minded as guided by facts. The commitment to truth and science is equated with the political elite’s agenda. Religious groups may denounce the science of evolution but leftist ideologies understand objectivity and science as Foucauldian techniques of governance. In this context, the tender minded are perceived as using “scientific” facts to push their ideologies and principled beliefs.
Moreover, empirical facts are understood as something people simply pay to have produced, circulated or interpreted. Scientific studies about vaccinations and climate change are likened to studies about whether drinking coffee or wine is good for your health: the evidence they yield depends on the corporate sponsor. Consequently, scientific investigations and the empirical facts they purport to determine are understood as just another extension of the economic market. In this way, facts have been reduced to mere opinion, and even opinion is changeable, and depends on profitability and convenience. As a result, empirical controversies generate irreconcilable political disagreements that cannot be solved by appealing to the people’s common sense, their shared knowledge or their informed opinions.
Instead of understanding the tough minded as being lead by facts, the tough minded are equated with the economically successful: The ability to fire someone or avoid taxes reflects the kind of business acumen necessary for earning profits. Being a big winner economically, and thereby being a job creator, signals possession of genuinely ‘useful’ and ‘real’ knowledge. Economic success requires a moral superiority that means being chosen (and therefore worthy of the people’s vote).
The appeal of having a tough-minded economically successful leader reflects a larger political trend, one that evaluates political solutions simply in terms of their economic viability. ‘Let the free market decide’ has long been a mantra for libertarians, but this idea now also underwrites much contemporary political decision-making. Our political aspirations and commitments have been significantly constrained by market forces: as the economist Charles Lindblom recommends, we should envision the market as a prison, one that limits what we think is possible and desirable.
Employing this conception of political solutions, the ability to work the market is vital to political leadership. Recently, Debra Satz, a Stanford philosophy professor, wrote a book entitled “Why Some Things Should Not be for Sale: The Moral Limits of the Market.” Satz’s work explicitly combats the pervasive idea that the market is the solution to all social and political problems. Those enthralled by this idea think that the solution to any problem exhibited by governments – inefficiency, cronyism etc. – is to privatize. Against this background, it is not surprising that the public would turn to a candidate with no political experience, no experience negotiating representative processes. Such experience would simply train a leader to become a political elite.
Americans’ desire for tough minded, economic successful leadership is certainly understandable given how economically vulnerable many of them are feeling. The loss of manufacturing jobs and the decline of unions have created ‘forgotten men and women’ whose economic livelihood is severely threatened. Moreover, in a political world where Congressional approval ratings are at an all time low, and the government is depicted as inefficient at best and corrupt and paralyzed at worst, turning to “politics as usual” for solutions seems foolhardy.
Rather than documenting all of the ways in which Americans reduce political relations to economic ones, I focus here on the phenomenon of name-branding. Interestingly, US consumer scientists have argued that name brands have been losing economic dominance. For instance, Glenn Llopis declared in 2014 that “Consumers Are No Longer Brand Loyal.” This loss of brand loyalty arguably resulted, as least partially, from the loss of consumer trust. In response to decreasing market shares, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that luxury brands raised their prices by 60 percent in a decade. Llopis offered one reason for raising the prices that “while many people in the industry blame the growing costs of raw materials, like crocodile skin, others say designers are raising prices purely ‘to increase their appeal’.” Raising its price makes a product more attractive to wealthier customers because it makes the product more “exclusive.” The desirability of a brand increases if others cannot afford it. The exclusivity of a product creates a desirable division between us, those who have access to goodies, and them, the excluded others who want what we have.
Moreover, when customers buy luxury goods, the actual quality of the goods or the circumstances of their production is not necessarily the underlying reason for the purchase. For instance, consumers buy UGG boots even though they are purported to be bad for their feet. The quality of the good is incidental to its perceived value—the perception of having all day slipper-like luxury is what one is buying. Similarly, one does not care whether veal is made from animals that suffer or the sale of diamonds is funding military conflicts. Nor does the fact that the engine of a $400,000 Rolls Royce is made in Germany as opposed to Britain affect its status-giving properties. This explains partially why people buy knock-offs on the street. It doesn’t really matter if the bag is a real Coach. It is the perception of owning a coach bag that one wants. Keith Wilcox, Hyeong Min Kim, and Sankar Sen found that consumers’ desire for counterfeit luxury brands hinges on the social motivations such as expressing themselves and/or to fitting in. Name branding can unite consumers.
Moreover, according to Llopis, name branding has changed. It has become “less about solving specific needs – and more an attempt to quickly create new revenue streams by promoting solutions for needs that don’t exist.” The desire to meet quarterly financial requirements from Wall Street has shortened the timeframe for determining market success. Name-branding is increasingly understood as “moment marketing.” One wins consumers by relying on sensationalism and social media trends—not by establishing long-term trusting relations with consumers.
Following these lessons from the luxury good markets, astute politicians can be expected to try to develop a political brand that generates new needs, as opposed to satisfying old ones. Their ‘moment marketing” would focus on winning the upcoming election and responding to twitter feeds and social media sensationalism as opposed to building long-term party loyalties. They would create their own media image and divert attention away from their opponents’ talking points.
Of course, the idea of political brands is by no means new. Catherine Needham wrote in 2006 that “Incumbent political parties, like the providers of commercial goods and services, are seeking to secure repeat sales at a time when consumer loyalty is under threat from proliferating choice and social realignment. As with other large and infrequent purchases, parties need to use marketing not only to win a sale (an election) but also to minimize post-purchase dissonance and encourage brand loyalty so that consumers will buy their product in the future.” 
Voters expected to be given the same old political brands in 2016: The Bushes and the Clintons. Much media attention had been paid to the fact that the US democracy has been dominated by these two political dynasties. The Bushes and Clintons were portrayed as American political royalty.
One way of understanding the election of 2016 is that the American people wanted a different brand—one that signals a change from the political status quo. And just as a teenager is willing to wear the latest fashion trend regardless of whether the trend hurts her feet, Americans chose novelty over experience. They wanted a new look.
So what is the Trump Brand?
The Trump brand holds symbolic value, and like many symbols, it can and does take on multiple meanings for different people. That is part of the secret to its electoral success. Consumers can project what they want, and even what they need, onto a purchased item. For my purposes, I will focus on only three possible meanings of the Trump Brand: the boss, the independent, and the luxurious.
The Trump Brand as Boss
It is certainly ironic that someone famous for shouting “You’re fired” on a reality tv-show could be electorally successful in an economy where the US public purportedly feared for their jobs. Certainly, the stream of criticisms from Trump employees or his vendors who didn’t receive payment should have given voters pause as to whether they would want him as the Ultimate Boss, let alone a Commander in Chief with a finger on nuclear weapons.
“One way of understanding the election of 2016 is that the American people wanted a different brand—one that signals a change from the political status quo.”
Trump’s arrogance and domineering demeanor marked him not as the boss who will fire you, but as someone who gets things done in a timely fashion. As he often reminded viewers, Trump makes his deadlines. In this context, his willingness to offend women and minorities signified his untouchability—that is, the way in which the economically privileged are a law unto themselves. The boss can order people around without worrying about hurting his subordinates’ feelings.
Trump surely had a reputation for being impolitic and a hot-head. For example, Trump was willing to blame the failure of his casinos on the 5 casino executives who died in a plane crash. Being undiplomatic is a virtue though when the public wants to “throw the bums out.” Pointing out temperament issues no longer becomes a criticism but reinforces the Trump brand as Boss.
The Trump Brand as Independent
Donald Trump consistently downplayed the extent to which his wealthy father was responsible for his economic success. Trump stressed how his managerial skills and intelligence, as opposed to his family’s connections and inheritance, produced profits. This presentation as a “self-made” man fits well with the standard version of the American Dream: success signals effort and merit. In this way, Trump’s wealth, irrespective of the actual amount of his wealth, becomes evidence of his qualifications to govern.
Trump’s financial independence was also presented as evidence of virtue. He wasn’t in politics for the money (he already had that). So he didn’t need to rely on special interests or corrupt lobbyists. Trump’s willingness to finance (or say he financed) his own campaign made him “not for sale” to the special interests that other political elites were vulnerable to.
“Just as a teenager is willing to wear the latest fashion trend regardless of whether the trend hurts her feet, Americans chose novelty over experience.”
By promoting his brand as meaning independence, Trump was also able to distance himself from both political parties. Here Trump’s contradictory statements reinforced his politics as belonging to a partisan no-man’s land. Was he really a pro-choice democrat in disguise or had he sincerely converted to being pro-life? The rejections by Republican stalwarts, like Mitt Romney and John McCain, and the denouncements of progressives, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, confirm that his political brand was a new kind of partisanship. And as Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov argue, Americans “have come to believe that there is something socially undesirable about identifying with either of the two parties.” Americans are dissatisfied with not one party but with the party system as a whole. In such a context, presenting oneself as independent from the system becomes a political virtue.
His independence also struck another “new” need of the electorate—to make the US economy no longer dependent on the rest of the world. Being willing to break from trade deals such as TPP and NAFTA as well as political treaties like the Iran Nuclear Deal provide evidence of that he was the true harbinger of change that Obama only gave lip-service to. Trump’s independence brand allowed him to represent “real” change.
Trump’s Brand as Luxury
In the marketing literature on name branding, quality is often discussed in terms of perceived quality. Of course, the perception process of quality is different for different people. Some people voted for Trump as the lesser of two evils while others simply wanted a tax cut or a more conservative Supreme Court. Regardless of the particular way in which a voter identified Trump as a “quality” candidate, their reasons are certainly tied to the identity and characteristics of the candidate.
Here it is helpful to begin with Trump’s own description of his brand. According to Trump, “From the start, I wanted everything I did to be of the highest quality imaginable and to be associated with luxury and exclusivity…I’m an ardent believer in always creating something that’s visually striking, like the illuminated seven story waterfalls cascading over finely matched Italian marble in the atrium of Trump Tower. I avoid the commonplace and give tenants and buyers more than they might expect. That’s a big part of the Trump brand.” Trump’s brand tries to be excessive, an extravagance that purposely increases the expectations of consumers. Those increased expectations entail the third meaning of the brand, namely of indulgence and luxury.
Ironically, Trump’s presidential candidacy resulted in his brand losing appeal among the wealthy (at least in the short-term). According to Will Johnson, an analyst from VAV Consulting, which monitors the perception of brands, the Trump brand was “collapsing” among people with a household income of over $100,000 but “resonating” with those who make less than $100,0000 a year. An online petition to “Dump the Trump Name” from Trump Tower in Manhattan got 300 signatures in 10 days. Marjorie Jacobs, a retired teacher who lives in Trump Tower reported that “It’s embarrassing to tell people where you live.” Another tenant, Ms. Kelly who started the petition expressed the idea differently “It used to be that we were embarrassed because he was tacky. Now he’s shown himself to be despicable on every level.” The loss of prestige among the well-heeled in Manhattan though can occur simultaneously as the brand “thrives in some of the lower income, very red regions.”
“It is certainly ironic that someone famous for shouting “You’re fired” on a reality tv-show could be electorally successful in an economy where the US public purportedly feared for their jobs.”
Notice that Trump explicitly admits that the perception of luxurious quality is obtained by stressing its exclusivity. His slogan of “Making America Great Again” follows a similar logic. By closing borders, denigrating minorities, and emphasizing the criminality of inner cities, Trump makes being an American less open to everyone. Being an American becomes the privilege of fewer people. Trump’s campaign strategies track with the marketing of luxury goods: products become more desirable, or to use Trump’s words “great,” when not everyone can afford them.
Arguably, the real appeal of the Trump brand is that status brings the political recognition that the forgotten people want. When one buys luxury goods, one becomes noticed. If political recognition is not adequately distributed, then turning to the strategies of the market to obtain recognition makes sense.
These multiple meanings of the Trump brand were by no means accidental, but actively cultivated by Trump. Trump famously contradicted himself throughout his candidacy. He was and was not pro-choice. He did and did not support the Iraq war. He would make statements and deny saying those very statements. As Serena Zito argues, the public took him “seriously but not literally.” Such excessive contradictions cultivated uncertainty about what the exact nature and meaning of the Trump brand. In this way, Name-Brand populism becomes whatever the American people wanted it to be. The contradictions provided enough feasible deniability to be able set aside worries about sexism, racism, or xenophobia and concentrate on the independent, successful boss who could make the US luxurious again. Name-brand access would allow the forgotten Americans to be seen.
What about the populism?
But Trump’s success relies not only on branding but also on populism. One of the most helpful definitions of populism comes from Cas Mudde. For Mudde, populism is “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite.’”
During the presidential campaign, Trump did not behave like typical political elites. He did not use teleprompters. He did not give polished speeches like the prepackaged ones of professional politicians. Trump also did not speak like typical elites. According to the Washington Post, Trump’s speeches were just below the 6th grade level. Bernie Sanders scored the highest among the 2016 candidates at 10th grade level. (Clinton’s scores varied substantially, thereby suggesting she changed her speech depending on whom she was talking to). Trump’s campaign strategy made him appear to be one of “the people” even as images of his apartment decorated with 24K gold and marble signaled an opulent lifestyle of the rich and famous.
Populism, though, is more than just being like the people. It holds that political progress depends on the voice of a unified people. Instead of recognizing conflicts as an unavoidable, and even desirable, part of democratic politics, and the constitution as the proper mechanism to adjudicate those conflicts, the will of the people is treated as “self-apparent.” The common sense of the average person displaces the political expertise of the elites.
In this way, populism aligns itself against social and political pluralism. Nadia Urbinati warns that such unity can take virulent forms. For instance, in the case of fascism, populism “transform[s] a political community into a corporate household-like entity where class and ideological differences are denied and mastered in the attempt to fulfill the myth of a comprehensive totality of state and society.”  Trump’s ability to win the votes of former Obama supporters and the KKK members suggest that Trump’s slogan of “Making America Great Again” resonated with very different constituencies. It identified a new political need. Instead of endorsing change à la Obama’s platform, Trump emphasized improvement that regained what the US had accomplished in the past. Such an understanding of improvement ignores the very real political, racial and economic divisions in the United States.
Urbinati goes on to say that populism is best understood as “a collective expression of resentment against the domestic enemies of “the people.” Populism offers a political strategy: the direct access of the people to governance structures will cleanse corruption and political paralysis. Indirect forms of governance, e.g. representative institutions such as political parties and caucuses, are corrupt because they distance the people from government. Mediating bodies don’t produce compromises; rather, they dilute the political force of the people. For Urbinati, populism is a strategy to give the people a direct voice in government. Representative institutions are barriers, not channels to the people’s voice.
Ironically, though, this political strategy of populism reinforces the concentrated power of states as opposed to dissipating it. “Disagreement and discussion were equated with leisure and ineffectiveness, while unanimous consensus and unity were proclaimed effective and truly popular.” People who disagree by burning flags or kneeling are traitors. Name-Brand populism offers unlimited authority to those who agree with the “Boss” as opposed to relying on the popularity of a policy to work through the checks and balances of the political system. To engage with one’s opponents’ perspectives, as opposed to simply deny and contradict, becomes associated with political elites (and thereby not representing the people). Trump’s refusal to play the traditional political game, e.g. disclose his taxes or use the language of professional politicians, as well as the traditional media’s criticism of him, told the voters that he was a new brand. By casting himself as the boss who gets things done, his ignorance about how politics usually works became a reason for his appeal.
The Cost of Name-Brand Populism
Populism and racism are inextricably tied throughout US history. For example, the well-known historian Richard Hofstader labeled the 1880s agrarian populist movement as the “precursor” for McCarthyism. Having very real economic grievances can be easily interpreted as the license to scapegoat other groups.
It is easy to see how the desire to create a unified people can slip easily into discussions about racial homogeneity. Throughout his campaign, Trump was able to question the moral integrity and intellectual competency of non-white groups. The media gave a lot of attention to his nasty comments about women, Latinos, Muslims, and immigrants to no avail. Such explicit denouncements gained him his popularity with white supremacists. For instance, Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke stated that voting against Trump “is really treason to your heritage.” Trump’s Name-Brand populism explicitly breaks the existing norms of civic discourse. He was a political rebel not bound by PC considerations.
Political scientists are quick to point out that a belief system in racial superiority is not the only way to be racist. Racism can also be about resentment, not just superiority. Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza argue that “the central problem of racial politics is not the problem of prejudice.” According to the resentment view of racism, the fear of losing one’s job, or perceptions about who benefits at one’s expense can prevents groups from identifying with other groups as individuals and human beings whose suffering matters. Trump was able to express the resentment of those who felt like they were losing their jobs to cheap immigrant labor as well as to jobs going to Mexico.
But Trump’s brand of populism, specifically his willingness to contradict himself, fostered a different kind of racism, one that reflects a lack of compassion towards fellow citizens and non-citizens alike. This third kind of racism is about how citizens ranked their political priorities, not about beliefs in racial superiority or resentment. The racism of Trump’s brand reflects a willingness to dismiss explicitly reprehensible claims while shopping. Just as one does not worry about the elephants killed in order to make ivory or the working conditions in diamond mines, one does not worry about the racism or sexism of a candidate whose brand symbolizes success. The perception of success “trumps” personality considerations, policy positions, and even party loyalties. The unwillingness of the American people to reject Trump for his flip-flopping reveals that the choice was not about the substance of his policy positions but about the perception of status. Trump’s success could allow America to regain its reputation for greatness.
Trump’s Name-Brand Populism does signal a new way of representing Americans. Voters looking for recognition might find some satisfaction in a President whose tweets provide a national platform to forgotten Americans. It is unclear whether the increased expectations raised by Name-Brand Populism will create a new brand of governance as well as a new brand of campaigning. In this way, Americans are waiting to see if they got a great deal or were sold a lemon.
Footnote & References
 See Bell, Daniel. The end of ideology. Vol. 3. New York: Free Press, 1960.
 See http://www.authorama.com/pragmatism-2.html
 See Charles E. Lindblom. “The market as prison.” The Journal of Politics 44.02 (1982): 323-336.
 See Elena Delgado-Ballester and José Luis Munuera-Alemán. “Brand trust in the context of consumer loyalty.” European Journal of marketing 35.11/12 (2001): 1238-1258.
 Keith Wilcox, Hyeong Min Kim, Sankar Sen. “Why Do Consumers Buy Counterfeit Luxury Brands?.” Journal of Marketing Research: April 2009, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 247-259.
 See http://www.forbes.com/sites/glennllopis/2014/12/10/consumers-are-no-longer-brand-loyal/#39e55c0a6058
 For example, see Needham, Catherine. “Brands and political loyalty.” Journal of Brand Management 13, no. 3 (2006): 178-187.
 See http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2015/0322/America-s-political-royalty
 See http://www.newsweek.com/2016/08/12/donald-trumps-business-failures-election-2016-486091.html
 Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov. Independent Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2016. p. 40
 For a list of Donald Trump’s contradictions, see Michael Kruse and Noah Weiland, “Donald Trump’s Greatest Self-Contradictions” Politico Magazine. May 5, 2016. Available at http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/05/donald-trump-2016-contradictions-213869D
 See Salena Zito, “Taking Trump Seriously but not Literally” The Atlantic. September 23, 2016. Available at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/trump-makes-his-case-in-pittsburgh/501335/
 See Justin Moyer. “Trump’s grammar in speeches ‘just below 6th grade level,’ study finds” Washington Post. (March 18 2016) available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/03/18/trumps-grammar-in-speeches-just-below-6th-grade-level-study-finds/?utm_term=.2d69994112b1
 For images of his opulent penthouse, see Ben Ashford “PICTURE EXCLUSIVE Inside Donald Trump’s $100 million penthouse: Gold-rimmed cups, a toy personalized Mercedes for his 10-year-old son, a $15,000 book and some VERY risqué statues” The Daily Mail. Available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3303819/Inside-Donald-Trump-s-100m-penthouse-lots-marble-gold-rimmed-cups-son-s-toy-personalized-Mercedes-15-000-book-risqu-statues.html
 For a more in-depth discussion of this view, see Jan-Werner Müller’s What is Populism? 2016. University of Pennsylvania Press.
 Nadia Urbinati. “Democracy and populism.” Constellations 5, no. 1 (1998): 110.
 Nadia Urbinati. “Democracy and populism.” Constellations 5, no. 1 (1998): 118.
 See Eliza Collins, “David Duke: Voting against Trump is ‘treason to your heritage’ Politico February 25, 2016. Available at http://www.politico.com/story/2016/02/david-duke-trump-219777
 See Paul Sniderman and Thomas Leonard Piazza. The scar of race. Harvard University Press, 1995. p. 107.